Japan’s cuisine has a long tradition. However, beside the “devotion” cuisine known as Shojin Ryori, this tradition does not cater that much to vegetarians.
If you are a vegetarian in a japanese restaurant, you may have a hard time trying to find dishes without meet and, even more difficult, without fish.
If you declare you are a vegetarian, you will be likely addressed to fish-based dishes, since many in Japan, as in other places, are convinced that only meat is excluded from the diet of a vegetarian.
The ensuing conversation around itto-vegetarians, ovo-lacto-vegetarians, vegans and so on is often pointless.
My advise is to always explicitly ask if any fish is used in the preparation of the dishes you are about to order. In particular, one should pay attention to “dashi”, a fish broth used as a base for most japanese recipes. Dashi is used for miso soups, noodles, okonomiyaki and in lots of other stuff, it is basically everywhere. Luckily, there is also a vegetarian variant, called kombu-dashi.
Therefore, unless you are heading to the restaurant of a buddhist temple, which is where you can usually find the strictly vegetarian Shojin Ryori cuisine, you need to get ready to deal with fish broth.
That is also because vegetarians are quite rare in the Country of the rising sun, less than 4% of the population, according to latest surveys.
In recent years, though, especially in Tokyo, specialized businesses have opened their doors and also “omnivore” restaurants have started to include vegetarian dishes in their menus regularly.
But let’s give a look at some actual places where you should not have make do with a green salad: Out of the many restaurants I have visited, I have short-listed 5 places, in different neighborhoods of Tokyo.
Three are “regular” restaurants that offer vegetarian dishes too, one is a macrobiotic and one is a vegetarian diner.
THE ITALIAN RESTAURANTS
That is a safe choice: an italian restaurant has got most often a good range of vegetarian dishes in their menus, and there is a large number of pretty good italian eateries in Tokyo.
NAPULE TRATTORIA PIZZERIA
Conveniently located in the Tokyo Midtown tower in Roppongi Hills, Napule has got its tables on a beautiful terrace adorned with mediterranean plants, with a relaxing view over the park.
The furnishing and the ambiance are pure italian style, and even its japanese owner speaks good italian. Beside his knowledge of the language, he has got also a valuable knowledge of italian culinary tradition that is reflected in each recipe, often build around ingredients shipped directly from Italy.
Definitely remarkable is its pizza, that with its organic flour and its made-in-Italy mozzarella cheese, would be the pride of many a “pizzeria” in Italy.
According to the owner, the milk of italian cows is somehow superior to that of japanese ones, and that is why he sticks to italian milk also for his gelato, shipped over directly from the italian region of Lazio.
ELIO ANTICA FORNERIA
“Elio Locanda Italiana” needs no introduction, it’s one of the top restaurants in Tokyo and as such is often visited by VIPs, whose pictures can be seen hanging on many of its walls. Not far from the main restaurants there is “Elio Antica Forneria”, a smaller venue in Chiyoda, that offers tasty italian home-style cuisine, at lunchtime and dinnertime, for a very affordable price.As a matter of fact, “Elio” has become an actual brand in Tokyo, that beside these two restaurants, offers catering services and sells italian products on-line.
The owner, Elio Orsara, moved to Japan from Calabria over 20 years ago; when he realized that he had a hard time finding in Japan italian products of the quality he needed, he decided to make them by himself, and started a cheese production factory in the island of Hokkaido, whose cows supposedly make fatter, and so tastier, milk. Beside cheese, other delicacies come out of his factory, unusually branded as “made by Italians”, as he convinced several of his fellow countrymen to join and work with him in Japan.
Here below his full story:
I have had lunch several times at “Elio Antica Forneria”, and every time I have found there very friendly personnel, ready to tweak their daily menu to make it a veg version for me; normal as it may seem in many other Countries, it is not common at all in Japan.
What’s more, their kitchen is in full sight, if you want to check how your dish is prepared. Dishes are simple, every-day’s recipes, however, stuff is nicely presented and pleasantly tasty.
THE JAPANESE RESTAURANT WITH VEG RAMEN
A small chain in Tokyo, Soranoiro has got 3 venues in different neighborhoods; I have been in the one in Chiyoda.
The place is really down-to-earth, with really informal atmosphere and casual furniture; customers are mainly japanese.
Its specialty is japanese ramen, of which they have a vegetarian and a vegan version. It also comes in a gluten-free version.
As in many small diners in Tokyo, food is payed in advance at a vending machine at the entrance.
Insert money, pick your dish and press the button under its picture, the machine will dispense a ticket that can be given to the waiter once you have managed to get a seat.
The veggie ramen I have tried was excellent; notwithstanding the generous portion, my fellow diner had two in a row.
THE MACROBIOTIC RESTAURANT
Chaya Macrobiotic offers macrobiotic and vegan cuisine; no eggs nor dairy on their menu, although some of their food contains fish.
It is located on the top floor of the renowned department store Isetan in the neighborhood of Shinjuku, and it is priced accordingly.
It is actually part of a chain of five such sites in Tokyo, typically having their own macro-bio-veg shop next to the restaurant.
As it is to be expected, they are outstanding at preparing tofu and their vegan burger is definitely a must-try.
After the savory, a remarkable set of sweets is there for you; besides being healthy, due to the absence of refined sugars, they are also finely crafted and very nice to look at.
THE VEG RESTAURANT
Kobachi ya s one of the best veg restaurants I have ever tried. It is tucked away in the basement floor of a building in Akasaka and therefore it is not very easy to find. It is owned by a gentle vegan lady, always ready to offer a smile to her customers.
Once you are in, you won’t feel like you are in a restaurant, it will rather feel like you are visiting someone at their place and you are sitting in their dining room. The owner would prepare your food in front of you and speak to you throughout your dinner, to ensure you know what you are eating and check if you like it. By the end, she also gave me a “vegan-card” with pictures and sentences in japanese, to help explain my dietary preferences in other japanese venues.
The menu is entirely vegan, with quite a large choice of dishes and the possibility to taste several things by choosing a “veggi-set”.
Everything is absolutely delicious and freshly made with seasonal grocery, impossible to name anything as a preferred option.
With local beers and fine sake to accompany your meal, dining at Kobachi ya is definitely recommended.